Rise of Dublin exposes GAA’s big fault line
Inequality is inherent in the county system but does the association really want change?
Dublin players celebrate their National Football League Division One final victory over Derry at Croke Park. Photograph: Tommy Grealy/Inpho.
Forty years ago Kevin Heffernan’s Dublin team began the process of opening up the capital city – and more specifically its previously uninterested southern reaches – to Gaelic games.
With its vastly disproportionate share of the national population, Dublin presents the GAA with a conundrum. The games must thrive there or else they fail nationally but if they prosper too much the danger is that the county will overshadow everywhere else.
Dublin GAA copes with the demographic challenges of any sports organisation in any major urban area: big population, diversity, social exclusion and the availability of many and various leisure pursuits.
The county board can take credit for the way in which Gaelic games have spread around the county – it could be better were there to be a greater number of clubs but the GAA has a presence all around the city and suburbs.
Hurling has been revived. Amidst all of the talk about how the Dublin footballers are (cruelly) eating other counties the weekend also featured the lower-key context news that the county’s minor hurlers had travelled down to Kilkenny and feasted on the locals in the Leinster championship.
Although the fear that the county, with its structures, success and attendant commercial revenues can now fund the process of exploiting a huge population, even Dublin’s development plan from three years ago Unleashing the Blue Wave – A Strategy for Dublin GAA 2011-2017 , which set ambitious targets, envisaged a football All-Ireland every three years and a hurling equivalent every five.
Or, to put in context: virtually the same football strike rate as Kerry since they started winning All-Irelands and a more modest one than that enjoyed by hurling in Kilkenny, Cork and Tipperary.
At the elite levels of its games the GAA has always had the problem of inequality.
In his annual report last January association director general Páraic Duffy suggested that Croke Park might try to redistribute central funding in the light of the more lucrative sponsorship deals available to larger counties.
Asked was this disparity not simply the outcome of the county system with its inherent inequality and dysfunction, Duffy replied: “I think the allocation of resources is clearly unequal and needs to be addressed. The structure may be creaking but that’s the structure we have to stay with. I made one exception and floated the idea of Dónal Óg Cusack in terms of Ulster hurling but that’s quite exceptional.
“By and large I think we stick with the county system that underpins the GAA – club and county. I wouldn’t move away from that. As I said, some of those small counties from time to time – maybe once in a lifetime – will defy all of the figures and all of the logic.”
Suggested solutions for the problems caused – splitting Dublin or amalgamating smaller counties – require tinkering with an ecosystem of loyalties that have evolved over 130 years. There doesn’t appear much appetite for that.
The most vivid example is the grumbling about Dublin playing in Croke Park all of the time. Is this an advantage to the team? Of course. Former Kerry manager Jack O’Connor said that the stadium is unlike any other in the liveliness of its playing surface and size.
He added that the benefit of observing the same routine for each big match is considerable – to which could be added having the support base a short commute away.
Is the advantage decisive? It wouldn’t appear so. In the 20 years since the new Croke Park began to become available, Dublin have a 67 per cent success rate in the stadium from 79 championship matches as opposed to 83 per cent on their travels (including their official county ground, Parnell Park) for 12 fixtures.
The one defeat came against Kerry in the first year of the All-Ireland quarter-finals, a replay in Thurles. In Leinster you have to go back 33 years for the last time Dublin were beaten on the road – by Laois in Tullamore.
It’s likely that some of the matches would have had a less resounding scoreline had they been played elsewhere but it’s hard to imagine that many outcomes being changed. Dublin have been beaten by 10 different counties, from all four provinces in Croke Park over the past 20 years.
Even so, why don’t counties in Leinster press for more fixtures requiring Dublin to travel? The answer is they don’t appear to want to. There was a suggestion at Leinster Council that the champions’ first match of this summer, against the winners of Wicklow and Laois, be played away from Croke Park. It got just two votes.
The reasons are straightforward enough. Firstly, most players and managers want to play in the stadium and secondly there is the financial consequence of moving Dublin, which means smaller and less rewarding gate receipts. In other words what projects or development grants would you like to cut to facilitate the idea?
This isn’t ideal for a lot of people. Local teams miss the opportunity to take on in their own back yard the champions and Dublin supporters miss out on the unique atmosphere of travelling to matches. Community businesses, such as pubs, shops and hotels, lose out on some welcome revenue.
Dublin have never agitated to stay in Croke Park. Former county secretary, the late Jim King used to say: “Dublin will play when and where we’re told.”
How badly does everyone else want to change?